Eagles at War tells the story of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Given that it’s one of the most famous military upsets in all of recorded history, I don’t think I’m giving away any plot twists here if I talk about it. I don’t think many people read historical fiction in a state of surprise. Three Roman legions march into Germany under the command of Quintillius Varus. They all die.
Obviously, that’s not the entire plot of the book. Kane starts off with the build up to it – you know that eventually the battle is coming, but most of the book is taken up with the tribes’ preparations and the Romans’ failure to realise what is going on. The book ends with the defeat, only a few survivors struggling out of the forest. It’s a bold choice for the ending of a book, striking a very low note, but there are sequels, which I imagine manage to be a little more upbeat.
The viewpoint in Eagles at War is relatively evenly divided between Arminius, the leader of the German tribes, and Tullus, a veteran centurion. It’s a good choice – Tullus is the more sympathetic character, but he’s less well informed. Arminius is the one pulling all of the strings, so seeing his plots fills in the key information before the fighting starts.
One strength of the book is the attention to detail. Kane’s clearly paid a lot of attention to detail. and while I’m sure there are errors, none of them were jarring ones. Little touches make the setting seem more real, grounding the events in history.
The writing is best up close and focused – legionaries standing shoulder to shoulder to repel a charge, that kind of thing. The combat is tense and visceral, detailed without being slow. The bigger picture is weaker though – there’s not always a sense of weight to the battlefields as a whole, and it’s difficult to visualise scale and movement. It’s a hard thing to get right, but also an important one for any book involving large-scale battles.
Like Simon Scarrow, Kane makes the decision to use modern swearwords for his ancient peoples. It’s not a choice that I particularly care for, but it does solve a problem – there’s no force to made up or dated cursing, but legionaries absolutely would have sworn, and would have done so with impact. Using modern words papers over the gap, allowing the impact at the cost of immersion. A little more jarringly, there are also a couple of moments where Kane uses modern slang, which I don’t like. I get that they’d understand the concept, and that the same considerations apply as they do for swearing, but a centurion using the word “quickie” shatters my immersion as much as a legate checking his watch would.
There’s a lot of excrement in the book. Everyone seems to suffer from intermittent diarrhoea, and they never tire of mentioning the smell. That’s not a criticism, really, just something that’s quite noticeable. Make of it what you will. Another minor point – justified mostly by setting, but still a little odd – is the near-total absence of female characters. Women are occasionally mentioned in passing, but even the few women who are actually present tend to get written in and out with very little attention paid to them.
Overall, this is solid, very much in the same vein as Simon Scarrow: competent historical fiction about earthy men and eagle standards. It’s not my favourite, but it stacks up fine against other books in the genre.